My Shitty Athletic Career

I did actually play some sports in between watching as many games as I could growing up in Chicago in the '70s and '80s. As I look back and try to figure out how it was that I came to care so much about Chicago teams that couldn't have cared less about me, I remember that I was quite the competitive little cuss through eighth grade at least. I would rage against losing back then, especially at dear, old Camp Echo in Fremont, Michigan. It was and is the overnight camp overseen by the Evanston (McGaw) YMCA. How a couple of city kids ended up there with all the youngsters from the suburbs remains a bit of a mystery.

My brother (two years younger) and I were main campers there for month-long stretches in 1977, '78 and '79. The camp went co-ed in 1981 so we got there just in time. It wasn't a sports camp so we focused on stuff like archery and riflery, water skiing and sailing during the weeks. But then on the weekends the camp was divided into teams and we had either Olympic or NCAA competitions (with the teams naming themselves after countries or universities). There was a swim meet part of the event, a massive all over the camp relay race, wrestling (which definitely didn't survive when the place went co-ed) and plenty of other awesome stuff.

The team events included some traditional sports but they also included full contact "water polo" in the shallow portion of the swimming area. A maintenance guy at the camp had welded together pieces of standard piping to make squarish goals with legs that dug into the sand just below the surface and it was the, most, fun game ever. Slightly dangerous, sure, but . . . Of course one of my primary memories from those days was of bawling my eyes out at one point as it became clear our team was going to lose a big game.

That goes right along with my most vivid memory of Little League baseball, which we played at Oz Park for a couple years. It and membership on the Jane Adams Center Hull House swim team were our only organized sports in Chicago before middle school. I remember pitching at one point and losing my control and, shockingly enough, my composure. After I walked in a run a coach finally came out and made a change and moved me out to center field. Literally the next hitter slapped a ground ball single back through the middle. I charged the ball, went to scoop it . . . and missed.

By the time I got the ball back to the infield the batter was crossing the plate for a classic Little League grand slam.

A few last memories of camp: it was big for my brother and I because while we were up there we were smart enough to take a break from competing with each other. That is definitely one of the reasons he didn't hate me later on for the many years I spent taking advantage of being older. Also, a few more words must be said about riflery. The range was a portion of the camp that faced away from everything else and was made up of a long concrete slab with a wooden roof. They kept the .22 rifles that we always used in a shed at the end of the slab. The first awards campers as young as nine could win for marksmanship involved excellence from the prone position. And that meant we would set up on our stomachs on mattresses and fire away at targets set up in front of a large dirt mound about 25 feet away from the slab.

If you won all the awards for prone position shooting, you could move up to shooting from a sitting position and then standing. I don't remember anybody ever officially doing that but we all tried it at some point.

On occasion there would be special programs where we could shoot at things other than paper targets. I once saw a guy explode a tube of toothpaste by hitting it in the top of the cap. It all just seemed like stuff normal people did at normal camps. Of course I can't, in any way, shape, or form, imagine anything even approaching such a scene at a camp affiliated with any part of the metro Chicago area in this day and age. But of course, it was great fun, fun that ended at some point in the' 80s. There was BB shooting there for a while but I'm pretty sure that is long gone as well.

At one point a former counselor who had become a police officer brought a handgun to camp and let us fire away at targets with it during family camp. It was such a cool experience and it was such the sort of thing that would result in parents completely losing their minds in this day and age.

In middle school (at the Latin School of Chicago), we played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. We never had great teams but it was tremendous fun. Another fun memory: during a break in an otherwise nondescript basketball game, I came to the bench and asked the guy who was keeping stats how many steals I had. He replied with something like three and I argued I had at least five. Sure enough the coach heard me and put me on the bench. He mentioned something about being focused on the team. To tell the truth I don't think the message really resonated. Lame, I know.

In my first year at St. Ignatius College Prep (1980-'81), a couple key things happened. First is, yup, another delightful memory. I started at center mid for the freshman team for much of the fall and we won more than we lost but didn't win a conference crown. One of my teammates (Tim) was one of the sons of my geometry teacher, the legendary Ignatius disciplinarian James Connelly. They had a classic Catholic family eventually featuring double-digit kids. At some point when Tim and I were in high school they had a Connelly in each grade.

We played at Homewood-Flossmoor at one point and late in a tie game, we were awarded a penalty shot. The coach had me take it and I . . . kicked it right to the goalie. The game ended in a tie. In geometry the next day, Mr. Connelly asked me a question and then said something like, "Mr. Coffman, perhaps you can do better on this question than you did on that penalty kick yesterday." Ouch, I know, and again, something that might of caused a major scandal in this day and age. Back then I'm pretty sure I just shrugged it off. That is something I think happened slightly more frequently than it does today.

Then in November I went out for basketball. I was one of the shortest kids at the tryouts and I suffered from something North Side kids have suffered from in Chicago for many a decade. I had been a decent player in Latin's Independent School League. But at the tryout I was facing a whole bunch of guys who had faced much tougher competition in different leagues all over the city.

I didn't make the cut. It was a blessing in disguise because if I had made it I would have been about the 15th guy on the bench and would have served as such without complaint. Instead I went out for the swim team and I was a better swimmer than basketball player.

That didn't save me from one final, humbling situation. Ignatius had gone co-ed a couple years before I got there and in 1980-81 still had a co-ed swim team. I look back on that now and I cannot believe that was still going on three years into the school being co-ed and I can't believe even more that it continued all through my run at the school.

Then again the team at the Hull House had been co-ed too so I don't recall it seeming that weird at the time. My primary memory of that first year, in which we were coached by a poor guy who was deathly afraid of the water (I am not kidding), was of the fact that several of my female teammates were considerably better swimmers than I was and one, Kelly Whelan, could just about swim circles around me.

Fortunately she was much better than a lot of the male swimmers in the Catholic League that year as well. Loyola hosted a freshman-only meet and I think Kelly won two individual races. I never caught up to Kelly but I was elected a captain my senior year. But at that point I was ready to be done with swimming. I went to Haverford College for a lot of reasons but it wasn't a coincidence that the school didn't have a swim team. In fact, it didn't have a pool.


Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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